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Book 3, Chapter 96 - War's End

 Squall charged recklessly at Augustus with all the might of his dark power. The consequence was significant self-inflicted damage, and the other demonhunters capitalized on the opening he gave them. He wasn't going to be able to protect himself.

Cloudhawk wanted to help, but he couldn't. The resonance of a dozen or so relics was almost deafening. It seemed like Squall would be blasted apart in moments.

Hatred had devoured all reason. What harm would there be in escaping to try again another time? At best he was going to die with his enemy!

The man's unbridled insanity had taken Augustus by surprise. Was he willing to destroy himself to drag them both to hell? He felt the threat of mortal danger wash over him. A hundred battles, a thousand threats... he never would have guessed this was how he would die.

But the danger was suddenly interrupted when a sword surrounded by an aura of frost streaked down from the sky and buried itself in the ground between Augustus and his foe. Blue-white energy diffused through the area like a fog that swallowed up everything in a given radius.

The frost borne by the sword was unique. It caused no damage to flesh, but had a distinct effect on nearby relics. The various weapons of the demonhunters stopped without warning in mid-flight, their energy stolen. Squall's arm was no different, and suddenly he found that all the strength he'd accumulated had vanished.

Frost de Winter descended into the gorge with his men in tow. They were all covered in soot with the exception of Frost himself, whose resplendent armor glimmered in the light.

He landed by his sword and wrenched it from the ground. Brandishing Frozen Dirge with his other hand, he threw it toward the one still charging ahead. Squall was caught by the spear in the chest. The impact immediately stopped his forward momentum, and the blood that poured from his mouth steamed and congealed like half-frozen ice.

"You're alright."

Frost helped Augustus up from the ground.

He was covered in hoarfrost and shivered, but it wasn't the cold that made him quake. Augustus couldn't feel it - the connection between him and his relics had been severed entirely. "This is the secret power of Rimeshard? It can restrain the power of other relics!"

Frost's heavenly sword repressed every relic in its sphere of influence instantaneously. All of that power, vanished.

Rimeshard created a sort of static field that counteracted a relic's resonance. Unless Frost was facing a foe much stronger than him, they couldn't break the lock. All they could do was wait for Rimeshard's power to wane. Augustus was grateful for it, for it'd saved his life.

Cloudhawk's innate ability allowed him to distinguish and connect with a relic's song. He was able to sense what no one else could. He knew right away that the sword was special. Its own power wasn't any spectacular, but the ability to deactivate relics was. No wonder, then, that Frost had been able to completely disregard the Caliph's sand powers.

His most threatening combat weapon was Frozen Dirge. With that sword as support, it made a man already notoriously powerful even more difficult to deal with.

Squall was forced to retreat back to his men. Blackfiend, Greensnake and Gremlin quickly surrounded him for protection.

Frost stood before the gathered survivors with Rimeshard in one hand and Frozen Dirge in the other. His jade-like armor sparkled in what little light there was, while his pure white cloak flapped heroically in the breeze. He peered upon the others with an aloof, elegant indifference with eyes like frozen pools. His presence was enough to shake the onlookers, even if he stood before them alone.

Three-Eyed Spider opened his third eye and searched the newcomer. His face was plastered with an unhappy scowl. What an unpleasant surprise, to find that the elysians had a young man like this among them.

Ravenous Tiger was also soured on the idea of conflict, especially since Frost had come with his own contingent of demonhunters. The Highwaymen were in better condition for a fight, but what would that get them? Best case scenario, they destroyed each other, and that wasn't worth it.

"So long as I'm alive, I will haunt your nightmares. And one day... one day they'll come true. I promise." Clutching his chest, Squall glared daggers at Augustus. "Remember, every dark corner... every shadow... every black crevice - I'll be watching. I will curse your name with my every breath until the day you die. And when you do, I'll make damn sure your spirit never knows rest!"

Ravenous Tiger and Three-Eyed Spider exchanged a glance. "Let's go."

Frost watched the wastelanders go, his sweeping eyebrows slightly furrowed. He did not give chase. Frost was strong, but even he had his limits. After the taxing battle with Wyrmsole he was only slightly less exhausted than Cloudhawk.

The other demonhunters were wounded and tired. Now was not the time to pursue conflict.

At last Frost's gaze turned to Cloudhawk, hard and unfriendly. Their animosity ran deep and had festered long.

But Cloudhawk wasn't afraid. He met his stare unflinchingly, even smiled. With a mocking tone he greted his old nemesis. "You make quite an entrance. It's been a long time, but obviously even in defeat you still like to show off. How can a loser still have so much confidence? It's shameful, really."

One of the demonhunters lurched forward threateningly. "What did you say?!"

Cloudhawk hardly paid them any mind. "I'm talking shit about your commander, Frost de Winter."

Drake knew that Cloudhawk was talking about their fight three years ago, when Cloudhawk and the Tartarus squad defeated Frost in the outskirts of Teal Ridge. Recognizing that his friend was using an old wound to cause problems he was ashamed on his behalf. Inwardly he urged Cloudhawk to keep his mouth shut.

If it really came to blows, things were not going to end well for anyone.

Of course, Cloudhawk was not the least bit concerned.

He knew just the sort of person Frost was. Conceited, hot-tempered. The more you provoked him, the less he knew how to respond. As a man who couldn't admit defeat, his first instinct would be to find a level playing field to redress these insults.

The situation being what it was, killing Cloudhawk wasn't an option. Meanwhile, Cloudhawk had just experienced a breakthrough. Although he didn't know exactly how much he'd improved, perhaps it was enough to go toe to toe with this sanctimonious shit-nugget.

All of the demonhunters present were under Frost's command. Cloudhawk's insult infuriated them all, but none more so than Augustus. Frost was the governor's personal disciple, so an insult against him was spitting in the face of their illustrious leader. Besmirching any of the men here was one thing, but insulting Arcturus Cloude was unacceptable.

Frost was like a sculpture of ice, nothing changed in his expression. His response was tepid. "I won't kill you today. Grow stronger, and one day far... far in the future when we are on more equal footing I will show you exactly how ignorant you are."

"Alright, if you're issuing a challenge then I accept. I'd be more than happy to help you find all the teeth I knock out afterward."

Cloudhawk was physically incapable of holding back his sarcastic remarks. It was a compulsion. But while he still had a litany of irritating things to say, now wasn't the time. Lava was still creeping toward their position and if they didn't go soon, it would be too late.

Forsaking a few choice phrases of his own, Frost hoisted Frozen Dirge and took the lead. By now a lake of molten stone separated them from their escape, but he walked onto it without hesitation. The moment his boots touched the lava it hardened, stretching out in a straight path toward safety. All the remaining survivors filed along in tow.

Cloudhawk followed Drake and his men until they got far away from the Blisterpeaks, then went his own way.

Drake and the border forces had a bitter reality to face when they got back, and Cloudhawk had his own important matters to deal with. Now wasn't the time for him to return to Skycloud.

"This was General Aegir Polaris' sword." Before parting, Drake handed Cloudhawk what remained of the blessed weapon. "With his death, much of the Polaris family's influence is gone. That means the elysian army is weak. I think it's fair to expect Arcturus Cloude will use this opportunity to strengthen his position, so it's time to make a stand. The governor is a remarkable man, but having the entire city under one family's control is not for the good of all."

Cloudhawk understood what Drake was saying. He wanted him to deliver Aegir's sword to General Skye - and he hoped that Cloudhawk might work to make sure Arcturus didn't become the only power in all of Skycloud.

Cloudhawk accepted the blade. As for the rest, he would need time to decide.

By the end of the war for the Blisterpeaks, tens of thousands of elysian soldiers had lost their lives. Hell's Army defected under no uncertain terms. Either one of these events would sweep through Skycloud like wildfire. Both together would shake its very foundation. The aftermath of this conflict would be far-reaching, and change the world as they knew it.

Eruptions continued for several more days and nights, all throughout the Blisterpeaks. By the time the lava slowed to a trickle, the mountain ranges returned to normal - but for the thousands of blackened corpses that were littered among the valleys.

There were elysians and wastelanders, though it was hard to tell which was which after the fires claimed them. Once Nirvana was initiated, those that were too slow in escaping succumbed to the heat and suffocating ash. Those that weren't incinerated by the lava lined the mountain sides as twisted sculptures.

Many of them were frozen in the positions in which they died. Some were mid step, others were huddled in despair. A few knelt in prayer while many were locked in eternal combat.

The disaster had encompassed nearly all on the battlefield. The tragedy was perfectly preserved here for all eternity. Thousands upon thousands of lives - gone because of the war between faith and survival. Their reward was eternal slumber, forgotten out here among the ash and obsidian.

When it was safe, Cloudhawk returned to the valley. What had always been a dead world was now covered in a blanket of ash, with rivers of lava beneath. He imagined it would remain this way for a long, long time. He peered through Oddball's eyes and saw it was the same all around.

Spectacular... and cruel.

Nature is and will always be the greatest artist. It was the kind of picture that should be shared with everyone. To show them what war brings, how fragile life was. But even if they knew, would the killing stop? No... no it wouldn't. The killing would never stop.

The only consequence of war was more war. Death only lead to more death.

In the end it would only stop when there was no one else to fight and no one else to kill. History would open a new chapter - and then it would all start again. For all man's accomplishments they were too weak to stop the inevitable return.

A three-meter tall figure that looked like a pile of rocks stood by his side. Scars marred several parts of his body though he seemed to have recovered from the numerous wounds. An extraordinary mutant, indeed.

"I decide not go," Coal said as they looked out over the valleys.

Cloudhawk didn't expect that. "You changed your mind?"

For a few seconds Coal was silent, dropping his eyes to the floor. "I cannot go with you."A frown touched Cloudhawk's face. He thought he knew why.

"I saw you save two men. Enemies of Coal - men Coal swear to kill. You are friend to Coal, do not want bring trouble to friend. So I cannot go."

It took effort for Coal to put his thoughts into foreign words, but he got his point across.

Cloudhawk understood. Coal looked at Cloudhawk as a friend, but the blood of his people demanded vengeance. If he chose to travel the wastelands with Cloudhawk, eventually he would cross paths with the ones who destroyed his family. That would put his friend in a tough position. The only option was to part ways.

Coal asked a question. "When I kill, you try stop?"

Cloudhawk answered. "If someone tries to kill me, would you stop them?"

"You are friend. You save Volcano Tribe. Coal die before you die." His broken words were filled with conviction. "I know. Understand what I must do. Kill them when you not there, so you not stop."

The mutant made no effort to hide his intentions from Cloudhawk. That was who he was - pure, open to expressing what was in his heart.

Cloudhawk wasn't in a place to try and dissuade Coal from his path of vengeance.

Anyway, Coal had the right. It was his responsibility, and more than that it was his destiny. No one could criticize his decision. If Cloudhawk tried to convince him otherwise because Drake was a friend, it would be nothing short of stupid and selfish.

His heart sank. "What are you going to do now?"

"Join Dark Atom." Coal gave his answer without hesitation. "Train. Become strong. Only strong can get revenge."

Coal had been born with a gift. In all his travels Cloudhawk had never seen anyone build upon their mutation like he had. If Coal joined the Dark Atom, they would give him a more effective and systematic form of training, teaching him how to use weapons. Practically turning him into a weapon. With the help of all their technology he would grow strong, smart, and capable.

How strong would he be when he emerged again into the world?

Cloudhawk didn't know, stronger than he would believe to be sure. But what worried him more than that was what Coal would become to the Dark Atom. In joining them he would be a tool, used at their discretion. Cloudhawk had always been careful to avoid stepping into conspiratorial circles, but who would be there to protect Coal and help him get free?

There was no going back from some decisions, but Cloudhawk had no right to try and educate his friend.

The Dark Atom was the only place that would take him in. It was his only chance to get strong fast.

Their grim conversation was interrupted by an explosion. Several wasteland airships emerged from nearby calderas and started for the borders of the Blisterpeak mountains. Cloudhawk knew when he saw them that they carried Dark Atom agents to seed throughout the wastelands.

The war for the Blisterpeaks had opened the flood gates. The Dark Atom and Skycloud were locked in naked conflict.

Results of the battle had spread, and the Dark Atom's reputation had grown. Now there were all manner of groups in the wastelands willing to pledge loyalty. A conflict like this hadn't been seen in over a hundred years. Who knew what would happen when the giants of the wastelands emerged from their hiding places.

The only thing that was clear was that this was just the beginning. Chaos would only spread. Cloudhawk couldn't guess what would become of the world, but he would be lying if he said he didn't look out over this scene and wish to see it for himself. After all, he was - at heart - a wastelander.

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